Day 849: From Bark To Boom – The Unflinching Spirit Of Our Animal Military

originally published April 28, 2014

James Joyce once said that one’s writing should inevitably become the pool of one’s deepest confessions. Actually he didn’t, but that sounded like a plausible opening sentence and it conveniently nudges me into the first point I want to make, which is a confession. It’s true that, for a brief but notable time when I was young, I honestly believed that animals assisted in the performance of numerous household chores during the prehistoric era, just like on The Flintstones. I didn’t think they made sassy remarks – I was gullible, not an idiot – but I could picture an elephant helping out with the dishes.

In reality, animals have been used to help out with human tasks for most of our history. Oxen and donkeys would drag stuff around for us, horses could be posed in comical oversized sunglasses for our amusement, and dogs would sniff our butts and check for worms (that was a big trend during the Renaissance, I believe). These are all well-known practical benefits to having animals around, but animals have also been a huge part of mankind’s most oft-enjoyed task throughout our duration on this planet: blowing each other up.

I’ve already written about great dogs and cats in the military, so today I’m going to open up the proverbial barn doors and check out some of the lesser-known contributors to the war effort. This might be good news for you; if you’ve been having trouble filling the bunks in your compound with die-hard adherents to your militia’s agenda, maybe you can build an army from some of these noble creatures. We’ll start with the big guys.

At some point in the millennium before year zero (actually, there may not have been a “year zero”, but that’s a discussion for another day), kingdoms in India began utilizing elephants as part of their armies. As Alexander the Great began working his way from Europe through Persia toward India’s doorstep, he encountered numerous foes with war elephants, both to carry heavy equipment and to charge at the enemy.

Elephants were the forerunners to modern tanks. Archers could perch atop them and fire their arrows past the enemy’s front lines. The beasts were tough to take down, even with a musket; it wasn’t until the advent of cannons in field battle that the elephant advantage started to dwindle. We don’t see folks slapping khaki paint on elephants and trotting them out to war anymore, but it’s rumored the Iraqis used them for weaponry transport as recently as 1987.

So apart from modern-era explosives and heavy artillery, how could an old-timey army hope to stop a war elephant?

That’s right. War Pigs is more than just an eight-minute heavy metal analogy on Black Sabbath’s second album. Pliny The Elder remarked that elephants are freaked out by “the smallest squeal of the hog”. Indeed, the Romans dispatched a fleet of squawking pigs and bleating rams to muck up the elephants’ groove when Pyrrhus of Epirus attacked in 276 BC. The folks trying to defend the ancient Mesopotamian town of Edessa hung a terrified pig outside the city walls to ward off the lone charging elephant in Khosrau I’s invading army.

Things got really freaky in the Greek city of Megara in 266 BC. Antigonus II Gonatas was plowing forth with his invasion, stacked with war elephants in his front line. The Megarans coated some of their pigs with a combustible resin and lit them on fire, sending the panicking porkers onto the battlefield. The elephants freaked out, and the ensuing bedlam killed a number of Antigonas’s troops.

It seems unnecessarily cruel, sure. But if you think this was the only time men used live fiery animals as weapons, well you just don’t know the nature of our species.

Maybe you were expecting something medieval here, like hamsters lit on fire and flung en masse at the enemy via a powerful trebuchet. No, we’re leaping right into the modern era, to the World War II experimental weapon developed by the US Navy known as the Bat Bomb. The ‘bomb’ consisted of a number of compartments, each equipped with a small Mexican Free-Tailed Bat who had a timed incendiary bomb attached to it. The idea was that a bomber would release the bomb, which would deploy a parachute, then open up so that its tiny well-armed passengers could fly out and tuck themselves into Japanese eaves and attics.

Louis Fieser, the inventor of napalm, designed the one-ounce bombs himself. They ran a test near Carlsbad, New Mexico, but a bunch of armed bats were accidentally liberated overtop the local army base. A few nestled underneath a fuel tank, which subsequently exploded. They handed the project off to the Marine Corps, who ran a successful test on a mock-up Japanese village in Utah. They might have been set to deploy the first fleet of blow-up bats in mid-1945, but the project was cancelled to make way for the Manhattan Project, which proved a more effective way of ending the war.

While the Americans were tying tiny little bombs to tiny little bat-feet, the British were bluntly shoving plastic explosives inside rat carcasses to distribute near German boiler rooms in factories, power stations or locomotives. The idea behind this ploy was that the stokers who tended the boilers would scoop up the dead rats and toss them into the furnace. There the explosives would detonate, killing the stoker and levelling the building.

It’s a brilliant idea, really. And it might have worked, had the first batch of rat-bombs not been intercepted by German forces. Once this happened, the British Special Operations Executive organization dropped the strategy. But the Germans were so freaked out by it, they showed the rats to everyone at their military schools, and conducted several in-depth searches for more deadly rat-splosives. The team who had been leading the project for England concluded that the subsequent use of manpower and lost time the Germans deployed probably caused more damage than if the rat-bombs had actually been used.

Over in Belgium they’re using their rats for good, rather than evil. They have found a way to train African Giant Pouched rats to detect landmines. The rats wear harnesses connected to a rope suspended between two handlers on opposite ends of the area they want searched. The rats use their sense of smell to find the landmines, and scratch at the ground where the scent is strong. Their little feet are too light to trigger the device, so this is a remarkably non-cruel approach.

Where there are no landmines to keep these rats occupied, they can still find gainful employment hunting down tuberculosis. Apparently rats can sniff out the disease in the sputum of a suffering patient. This is a big leap over actual technology; a lab tech can work through about forty sputum samples a day, seeking out the telltale signs of the disease under a microscope. A rat can do that many in about seven minutes. It’s all in the nose.

For good or evil, we have pulled off some incredible feats of animal manipulation for warfare – maybe not Flintstones-level amazing but pretty damn close. And that’s without taking into account the anti-tank dogs, the camel cavalry, and of course (of course) the mighty horse.

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